Mark 9:14-29: Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief!

At first listen, today’s Gospel sounds as if it’s only about demon possession and exorcism.  For we hear about a boy with a troubling demon that causes epileptic-like seizures and even tries to throw the boy into fire or water.  That’s frightening stuff.

What makes this even more frightening is that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t deal with this demon on their own.  They needed Jesus to intervene directly.  For whatever reason, the disciples lacked whatever it took to make this demon back down.

Last week, we heard about Jesus healing a deaf-mute by sticking His fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and grabbing hold of the man’s tongue, and saying “Ephphatha!”  There was no mention of a demon there, but it did sound a bit like an exorcism on Jesus’ part.

But in today’s Gospel reading, we clearly find a spirit (or demon) that only Jesus could cast out.  To this, our modern ears usually have one of two reactions.  We can dismiss this as unsophisticated, pre-scientific nonsense.  For it seems obvious the boy was suffering from epileptic seizures.  We can also believe this account and take demon possession seriously.  But that can also present a danger: we can become preoccupied with the demonic and begin to look for a demon under every rock.  We can even begin to think that every form of mental illness is some form of demon possession (as if our Fall into sin has somehow not affected our brain).

And if we were to look further, into cultures and countries, we would begin to find a pattern.  In places and among people where they do not take the devil seriously, he makes himself even less serious.  The devil becomes trivial, the stuff of Halloween.

Today, our culture doesn’t take the devil seriously enough.  Many of us even pass him off as a piece of religious mythology that we’ve outgrown.  What a colossal mistake!  Evil has its source in the father of lies.  He “prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour,” looking for the wandering sheep and the isolated believer.

Yet, in places and among people where the devil is taken seriously, he makes himself even more serious, creating fear and terror in the hearts of people.  He would have you become superstitious.  He would have you turn to magic and spiritual mediums.  He would turn your faith into a superstition and your God into a good-luck charm.  The temptation would be to take the devil as seriously as God, even to the point of making the devil into a competing deity.

The devil always seeks to drive us into one of those two ditches.  You either take him too lightly or too seriously.

So, what happened?  From the crowd, a man brought his son to be healed of a demon that caused him to have seizures and foam at the mouth.  The disciples tried.  And the disciples failed.  They couldn’t heal the boy.

So, the crowd turns to Jesus.  But Jesus finds this irritating.  He calls the crowd a “faithless generation.”  And then He says, “How long will I be with you?  How long must I put up with you?”  It looks as if the whole scenario has put Jesus into a foul mood, where He’s snapping questions and ordering people around.

What has Jesus in a foul mood is the unbelief He sees around Him.  Simply because the disciples couldn’t heal a boy, the crowd now turns on Jesus.  Even the father of the boy isn’t sure that Jesus is up to the task.  “If you can do anything, help us!  Show us compassion!”  Did you hear the man?  He told Jesus, “If you can.”  There it is.  There’s the doubt and unbelief.

And that wavering unbelief does not escape Jesus’ notice.  What do you mean, “If you can”?  “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Everything is possible, for with God nothing is impossible.  With God, a virgin gives birth.  With God, the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the demons are cast out, and the dead are raised.  How much proof do you want?  How much proof does it take?  Yet, they remain unconvinced when one demon proves to be “resistant.”

It’s then that we come to the heart of this story.  You see, this isn’t so much about a stubborn demon.  No, it’s about what happens to your faith when your religion doesn’t work.  You can substitute whatever you like for the stubborn demon and come to the same place: the incurable cancer, the sudden accident, the failed economy, your unanswered prayers, or your dashed hopes and dreams.  You brought your problems to God, and God didn’t (or couldn’t) fix them.  You prayed for healing and you only got worse.  You prayed for a better job and you lost the one you had.  You know how it is.  We’ve all been there.

You then are tempted to trade in your God for another model.  The temptation is to swap your religion for something that “works.”  That temptation is especially true for us Americans, where the litmus test for truth is if it works.  We’re a practical people.  We admire whatever gets the job done.

Do you see where this is heading?  Are you beginning to see how the devil can deceive you?  For if he can get you to bite on the notion that something must be true if it “works,” where has he taken you?  That would need no faith.  You then would go to wherever something worked, whether right, wrong, or indifferent.

So then, when whatever it is stops working, when the disciples can’t cast out a demon, or God won’t fix your problem, you have a Satan-created worldview to give up on God.  And you will chase whatever works straight into oblivion.  That’s because “whatever works” is too short term of a measure.  It’s too narrow.  For you are then tempted to think of eternity based on what works here in time.  Can you not see the logical fallacy of that?

Jesus says, “Everything is possible for one who believes.”  Does this mean that if you believe hard enough, you’ll get your wish?  Is that the essence of faith?  Is faith believing hard enough, so you can force God to act?  Is that trust?  Does a child only trust the parent when the parent gives him what he wants instead of what he needs?  Is that trust?

Yet, to his credit, the father of this child finally gets it right.  He cries out: “I believe!  Help my unbelief.”  That’s the true cry of every Christian.  That’s being a saint and being a sinner.  That’s you; that’s me.  Lord, I believe!  Help me in my unbelief.  Lord, when it looks as if You are not doing anything, help my unbelief.  Teach me to trust You when You appear weak.  Teach me to trust Your Word even when it doesn’t appear to work.  Teach me to trust Your promises over and against my own feelings.

That’s how the faithful pray in this life.  Mixed with faith, there is always, always, a tinge of doubt.  For we are dealing with unseen realities.  We are dealing in matters of trust.  And the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful selves would cause us to doubt God in the face of suffering, injustice, and evil.

The question here is this: Do you trust Jesus when He doesn’t cast out the demon?  Do you trust Jesus even when He doesn’t cure the disease?  What about when He doesn’t fix the problem, but says to you as He did toSt. Paul, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”? (2 Corinthians 12:9).

When Jesus finally gets around to casting out the demon, the boy seems to go from something terrible to even worse.  Oh, the demon leaves, but the boy looks as if he died.  The cure looks to be worse than the disease.  Is that a failure on God’s part?  The demon is gone, but the boy is dead–or at least, looks that way.

In the hands of Jesus, death, disease, and demons are all cut from the same cloth.  He takes the boy’s hand, lifts him up, and he arises.  It’s a little resurrection (the Greek of the New Testament even uses the same word for “resurrection”).  For that’s where it all comes together–in the resurrection!

Yet, privately, the disciples’ inability to do anything about the demon still troubled them.  “What did we do wrong?”  Jesus gives one of His sideways answers: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”  There’s nothing “magical” here; it’s prayer.  The most stubborn of demons, which only the Lord could cast out, which left the little boy nearly dead, can be cast out by prayer in faith.

It’s all about trust.  It’s all about faith.  It’s about prayer that lines itself up with God’s will.  For such prayers have heard the Word of God, and that Word has shaped and formed those prayers.  For the devil and His demons are defeated by the cross of Christ–not by our power.  It’s all by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and by the simple prayer that rises through Him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

So whether life is working out well or not, whether God is doing what you want or not, whether it “works” or not, trust in the Lord.  Trust His promises.  Trust your Baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection.  Pray, praise, and give thanks.  For God will raise you on the Last Day into eternity, just as He has in your baptism.  Amen.